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Saturday, 1 February, 2003, 01:11 GMT
Young people the system forgets
Mike Baker graphic

The English education system is strangely, almost grotesquely, distorted.

On one side it shows a highly successful face to the world. The other side reveals ugly failure.

Lee Burnell knows all about that failure. He has spent most of his teenage years in custody. He will be released soon and faces an uncertain future.

Contrasting achievement

More from him later. But first, look at these statistics, which highlight the contrasting sides of educational achievement.

We lead the world in producing the highest proportion of our young people graduating from university. All is well at the top end.

The plight of young men deserves more of our attention

But look at the proportion of 17 year olds who are in education or training and you get the dark side.

Our record is so poor we come 20th out of 24 leading economic nations, just scraping in ahead of Italy, Greece, Mexico and Turkey.

The target is to achieve 10th place, the position currently occupied by the Czech Republic. But there is little sign of progress so far.

This week it emerged that the government had missed, by a mile, its target of getting 85% of 19 year-olds to achieve the equivalent of five good GCSE passes. A quarter of them still fail to manage this.

Oddly, there was none of the fuss that greeted the failure to hit the targets for 11 year olds.

Wrong focus

It is almost as if we care about education for all up to the age of 16, but after that we focus only on what's happening to those who are relatively successful.

If you peer more closely into what happens to many of those 16 and 17 year olds who have dropped out of education or training, the picture is bleak.

For far too many of them, especially the boys, the route is crime, the destination prison.

A staggering 200,000 young people enter the youth justice system each year. Of these some 7,000 receive a custodial sentence.

Dreadful costs

Quite apart from the dreadful cost to themselves and their families, these young people represent a huge cost to the tax-payer and to society.

Money spent on avoiding educational drop-out now would save the amount, 10 times over, that is spent later on prison and rehabilitation.

For the links between education and crime are regrettably all too clear.

According to the Youth Justice Board, children who are excluded from school are three times more likely to commit an offence than those who remain in school.

Their offences are also likely to be more serious. Of those young offenders who end up in custody, 45% have been permanently excluded from school.

The Youth Justice Board says nearly half of young people in custody have literacy and numeracy levels below those of the average 11 year old. A quarter have numeracy levels no better than a child of seven or younger.

Something is beginning to be done about this. A pilot literacy and numeracy scheme for hard-to-engage youngsters is going to be spread nation-wide.


More innovative still is the clumsily titled 'Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme'. This is an alternative to custodial sentences for young offenders.

Instead of being locked up, they are given a 25 hours-a-week programme of education and mentoring.

Typically, this might include school attendance every weekday morning, supervised training and behaviour programmes in the afternoons, sessions with a mentor and a curfew from 8pm, seven nights a week.

They are checked regularly: the surveillance element of the programme includes electronic tagging or voice-verification telephone checks to ensure they are complying with their curfew or education programme.

The serious educational under-achievement of young offenders gets little media coverage. We are usually too occupied with issues at the upper-end of the education scale: problems with A-level marking or university admissions.

Youth crime

Yet youth crime is a huge problem. Its effects certainly get media coverage - enough to scare you from going out at nights.

But there is little focus on the educational roots.

This is not to pretend there are easy answers. Nor is it to lay all the blame on schools. Without the right foundations and support from families, many young people are just too difficult for mainstream schools to cope with.

But is enough being done to make it easier for schools to help these young people? To take just one example, does the pressure of league tables work against schools trying to keep difficult, low-achieving pupils in school?

Do schools which put extra effort into helping disengaged youngsters get the extra financial help they need? Is there sufficient curriculum flexibility to offer them what they are interested in?

Hard luck

These issues are being addressed. But media, public and political pressure seems to press much harder in other areas of education.

We have heard a lot of the hard luck stories of pupils disappointed by their A-level grades or worried about the cost of university.

These are important issues. But how often do we hear from the likes of Lee Burnell?

Lee is due to be released from Belmarsh Prison in September. He has been in custody on and off since he was first arrested aged 11.

He has been in foster care, secure units and young offenders' institutions. He is now 25. His ambition is to be a crane operator.

I met his prison advisor, Linda Lockwood, the other day. She gave me a letter from Lee. Both he and the prison are happy for him to be identified to highlight the need for educational and training support and advice for young offenders.


Lee says: "I entered Feltham young offenders' institution at 14 years old. It was not a nice place. But I found, for all its faults and problems, there were some good opportunities.

"Outside, you spend many hours alone and skint with no support and no real plan what to do, so you either do crime or drugs as a way to relieve the boredom or to escape whatever situation you find yourself in.

"Whilst inside, on many sentences, I have dealt with one problem at a time as, if you try to tackle all of them, you end up depressed and overwhelmed by the mess that is your life.

"All the courses were good if you choose to use the strategies and problem-solving techniques."


For Lee, the first steps towards achieving his ambition as a crane operator came with the courses he received in custody.

But on his release he will need more help. The training course for tower crane operators costs about 2,500. There is no government funding.

At present, Lee has no prospect of getting the money to do the course that could lead to useful employment and stop another downward spiral.

He says, from his experience, there are three key steps towards rehabilitation.

First, there must be an assessment of the young offender's needs.

Second, they need courses to help them deal with these problems.

Third, they need support towards employment on release.

It is a pithy summary. The educational plight of young men like Lee deserves more of our attention.

We welcome your comments at although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.

See also:

31 Jan 03 | England
19 May 02 | Politics
28 Jan 03 | Education
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